I am really surprised at my own reaction to this book. I was expecting to be impressed - blown away, even, maybe. In other words - a lot of hype surroI am really surprised at my own reaction to this book. I was expecting to be impressed - blown away, even, maybe. In other words - a lot of hype surrounds this book: youngest winner of the orange prize; comparisons to the magical-realism of Marquez, et al.; allegedly the best debut novel in the recent history of debut novels...
Yeah, well... It was boring as hell. I actually said "yeah, blah, blah, blah" out loud while reading this thing. Please don't get me wrong - it is meticulously written. It is careful, deliberate, MFA-ish, almost absolute in its perfection of sentences. The descriptions and imagery are beautiful...its the characterization that was lacking for me.
Sure, I can read all about "sun-smeared windows," or about the "determined way the blue paint clung to the shutters..." But I can only care about what I'm reading when you give me a reason to, Tea Obreht. For instance, the blue-paint-sentence was on a page that also featured dialogue, and three different characters, all in a first-person narrative voice. Yet, we've got a problem here...because the blue paint clinging to shutters is the most interesting thing happening on that page.
In other words - the narrative voice (the main character, on the whole) is one of the things dragged this book down for me. Natalia, our protagonist, was a character who had recently lost a loved one - she is actually described as "grief-stricken" - and yet, she is flat, unfeeling, vague, shapeless, a shadow: the opposite of a disembodied narrative voice - she was almost voiceless, a vessel letting the other character's voices speak through her and hold up her amorphous form because Obreht's narrative failed to hold the character up on her own.
It would be one thing if this was a literary device (maybe it was intended to be) - if Natalia was a personality-less vessel telling the stories and myths and legends of her war-torn country. I mean, it is a novel about legacy, the power of storytelling to immortalize mere mortals, shared mythology, and the way that identity is shaped by personal narrative - the stories we tell ourselves to define who we think we are. <-- I saw what you were doing there, Obreht! I think I got it.
I just wish that there was more feeling! Depth. Grief. Pain. I wish the characters had some heart, some hunger, some anger, a sex-drive...ANYTHING! Instead, the two main characters on whom the story is built - Grandfather and Natalia - are so goddamn flat and boring! You wanna talk about the "deathless man"? What about the "personality-less" characters? Heartless. Witless. Cock-less. Nary a personality-flaw in sight! Even family secrets, once unearthed, were boring.
Only the tertiary characters, and the titular character (The Tiger's Wife, a secondary character) were drawn with any kind of charm, complexity, or... thought, really. I got the feeling that the author was perhaps using Natalia as a kind of Mary-Sue - a stand-in that she personally "knew" so well she forgot to give it personality at all.
But, you know, even though I didn't enjoy this book I think this author is off to a great start. Some people really loved the shit out of it. And some of the stuff about the kooky villagers was really, really good.
Think about it: she's got her subtle, semi-autobiographical, deep-thoughts-about-the-nature-of-life-and-death debut novel out of the way! And not only was it good enough to publish, it was good enough to shower with awards! Honestly, the good writing is there - Obreht just needs to find her voice and stop stifling it with such carefully-rendered prose about paint on the wall (Paint! On. The. Wall)....more
The book opened like so: "Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well." Oooooooh. Enter the world of Karou, raised by anThe book opened like so: "Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well." Oooooooh. Enter the world of Karou, raised by an otherworldly - but loving - family of chimeras, who becomes the apple of an avenging angel's eye. Akiva, a Seraphim soldier seeking to destroy the chimeras, is drawn to Karou for reasons unexplainable. Then they fall in love. Then, they figure out WHY they are drawn to each other.
The somewhat dainty "Once upon a time..." fairy-tale/fable motif that opened the book is suspended for a bit of teenage realism as the story takes off... In the beginning, there's a few vague mysteries hinted at. But, for the most part we were introduced to the story's protagonist, Karou, basking in all the teenager-y-ness of modern times: artsy, angsty, angry, snarky, funny. I adored her.
And her strange lifestyle, her bizarro foster family of chimeras? It took very little suspension of disbelief. It was convincing from the get-go. In the world of paranormal romance (fantasy, really) the seamless convergence of worlds is key. How your world holds up might make or break me, as a reader (unless you're Libba Bray, I guess).
Laini Taylor wove the two worlds together so seamlessly. It was as if the two worlds just were. Wow! Now, she's getting Gaiman-esque. I don't know what "Gaiman-esque" means when other people reference Neil Gaiman, but for me, it is something specific:
It is something I see in almost all of Gaiman's work, even the short stories. It is this seamless converging of realities, yes! But, it is also the way the story - which seems to have been told hundreds of times before even though you've only read it once - is fresh and new and perfectly rounded out just like a fairy tale. In some ways, it does not claim to be more than a story. But, its a story so good that it is real and true. (What?!? I dunno, this is why I want to marry Neil Gaiman's books and have their babies.)
Wait - J.R.R. Tolkien knows what I mean. Guh! He talks about this great tree of tales, where all the stories exist as leaves on branches. And the author of a fantasy (or, a fairy-story), doesn't discover the leaf - which is/has always been - but instead unfolds it, tells its story, this story that already exists. "One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps."
So, at the end of The Daughter Of Smoke & Bone I just picture J.R.R. Tolkien and Neil Gaiman and Laini Taylor all hanging out picking the leaves of this Tree of Tales and giving them to us in a way that we're surprised by them, but at the same time deeply familiar with them, culturally or spiritually, or whatever.
"The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered...while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost." [Tolkien "On Fairy-Stories"]
Let's just say - Taylor's story presents questions, so many questions! But, never about the believability or viability of her world. Only about her story itself. Why does Brimstone collect those teeth, why does Karou have those tattoos on her hands, who were Karou's parents, really?
The Daughter Of Smoke & Bone is quite an accomplishment for a genre (paranormal romance/romantic fantasy), where the love story is allowed to cast a shadow over the more foundational aspects of storytelling itself. Characterization, conflict, resolution - sometimes, those are left out for the better love story, and it makes for a shitty book. But, not in Laini Taylor's case: the love and the longing work perfectly in a beautifully imagined world.
Laini Taylor's The Daughter Of Smoke & Bone is so well done. She is an excellent storyteller with an excellent imagination. The hamsas, the teeth, the smoke, the bone, the myth of the two moons - all delicately revealed. No extraneous details, everything fits.
So, what happened to her fifth star?
"You need to just let this breathe..."
Once, a kid in my fiction writing class said that to me in his critique of my short story. He held up my story and had circled my OMG! First Kissing Scene. "You need to just let this breathe..." It was his only criticism. And he was the One Kid in class whose opinion I most trusted (you know THAT kid in the creative writing class, the one who is better than you, and therefore whose opinion you hinge your every hope on).
He was right, of course. That scene was trying to convey some "big emotions," some big chemistry, and ended up overwrought and prolly terrible to everyone who wasn't me.
Kissing scenes (intimacy scenes) are hard to do right. Like battle scenes! There is chaos there, and emotions all over the place, spewing everywhere like blood or saliva - take your pick - and the reader often finds herself somewhat lost in them, searching for, like, little moments in the paragraph to latch onto, rushing through them to wrap her head around what is actually going on.
I have a really hard time reading battle scenes. And kissing scenes. For the same reason.
So, here goes: my only criticism of Laini Taylor's The Daughter Of Smoke & Bone, which was otherwise a beautifully realized story - as well as a beautifully written story: Lady, you should have just let some of that lovey-dovey angel/demon stuff breathe for a minute.
Ultimately, there is this climactic scene of closeness between Karou and Akiva. In this scene, an action - (view spoiler)[breaking a wishbone (hide spoiler)] - will lead to the truth about who and what Karou is and what exactly their love is about. Man-oh-man, was that scene drawn out. It was pages and pages long!
Paraphrase: And she was drawn to him, and he was drawn to her. And something was pulling her, and something was pulling him. And they were drawn and pulled. Draw/pull, draw/pull, draw/pull. Chapter ends. Draw/pull. Chapter begins. Draw/Pull. Flip pages, draw/pull.
Suddenly, I am lost in a sea of flowery, overwrought prose. Drowning in it, really. Waiting for action, resolution. Waiting for solid-ground storytelling again. (view spoiler)[Break the fucking wishbone! (hide spoiler)]. And it came. And it was explosive. And lovely!
But, someone should've told her to calm down a little bit a for a minute there. No doubt some people live for these intimate moments in romance books. But, I am not one of them. Laini wasn't being a bad writer, per se. But, she was letting these emotional moments fog up the place for a minute, and I found it somewhat unnecessary. Or overlong. Almost - dare I say - boring.
Don't think I hate LOVE, or something. I don't! But, love scenes and battle scenes, man. Sometimes, they can be just too much. They just need to be careful pieces of writing.
...Read this book! It is excellent. Although I am slightly distressed to find myself in the middle of another series for the third time this year (Goddamn you! Game Of Thrones!), I CANNOT wait for more of these characters. In the meantime, I can't wait for some more Laini Taylor - she's outstanding.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more